Saturday 24 November 2012

The BBC And The Wreck Of The Birkenhead

The mail inbox yesterday told me that Tony Hall, Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House has been put out to grass at the BBC as the new Director General.  There has been criticism that at 61 he is much too old and out of touch although slightly younger than Winston Churchill was when he became Prime Minister in 1940.

Being Prime Minister during World War II from 1940 to 1945 was a doddle compared to running the BBC in this graceless year of 2012.  The previous DG, George Entwhistle, a good old Lancashire name, hailed is the inside man for the job, lasted 54 days before being forced into a comfortable retirement. 

He followed Mark Thompson who had to get out in the unfolding crisis, but on much more lucrative terms.  If I was young enough to pay the license fee, I would be complaining loudly.  The BBC is not a happy place to be these days.  It was said that as George was a team player he might change things.

For those of us interested in football of one kind or another there is something called the “hospital pass”, that is the ball being moved on to a player who is either already well marked or who has the opposition waiting for him. 

There are two kinds.  One a hasty ball moved on by a player already in trouble who does not care who gets the hit.  The other is a knowing pass deliberately given to another of your team who you are glad to see turned over.  George may have been the victim of both in the balls he has dropped in his short term of office.

Tony Hall, as he is known in that comradely way among those of the Left is also Baron Hall of Birkenhead and so a Lord.  The Birkenhead title was first given to the leading lawyer F.E. Smith as an Earldom, but became extinct in 1985 with the early death of the 3rd Earl.  He became a Life Peer as one of the last creations of the George Brown era of government.

Tony Hall, Lord Birkenhead is listed in Wikipedia for the detail but the key is that he was born in the Wirral; that spit of old Cheshire over the Mersey from Liverpool.  Those of discernment on The Wirral often prefer not to be associated too closely with the people over the river; even if they are of much the same stock.

Tony was at the BBC from 1973 to 2001.  As the then Head of News he missed out on the DG job in 1999 taking over the Royal Opera House in 2001.  The ROH was then in a bad mess, both financially and artistically. 

Financially, there had been a major renewal and refurbishment before 1999 which inevitably had cost a lot more than estimated.  It was 40% dependent on Arts Council money which was getting uppity about what was going on there.

As it happens, late in 1999 the first audience into the new setup was a BBC In Tune Radio 3 broadcast from the now splendidly fitted out old Floral Hall flower market with a few invited listeners there, including us. 

My reason was that back in the 1950’s I had done some barrowing around the old Covent Garden Market as a casual labourer to help me through college and in and around the Hall.  I like to tell people we meet that socially it has gone down a lot since then.  The only ones who really laughed were some Russian security goons who turned up one night who we struck up a conversation with.

Fair enough, Tony has done good at the Old House, as my friends from the 1950’s might have said.  Financially, it is much more soundly based.  He has ticked all the right boxes for the government and the Quango’s and the Royal Opera and Royal Ballet have achieved a high status in world Arts. 

The BBC now is not as it was in 1999 when he did not get the job.  The arrival of satellite television which does a much better job in News, Sports, documentaries and The Arts is a challenge they have not met.  The internet has posed other challenges.  The inability of the BBC to use its incredible archive is one thing that makes me despair.

Also the 1997 to 2010 Blair and Brown years of government have left it highly politicised, encumbered with a huge management overload with targets of impenetrable meaning and purpose and a self serving culture and now wide open to informed criticism and questioning. Most of their problems are self inflicted.

So with the best will in the world it may be that Tony Hall is at best on a rescue job and the odds are stacked against him.  Quite what the future of the BBC might be is anyone’s guess.  The chances are it will be a chaotic collapse.  Tony may find himself going down with the ship.

Inevitably, this brings me to History, another thing the BBC now tailors to its own image, and this is the sinking of the ship the HMS “Birkenhead” off Danger Point at Algoa Bay off the coast of South Africa in 1852.  It is said that a troopship with 643 men, women and children on board only 193 survived, including many of the women and children.

Unlike most ship disasters at the time the men of the ten regiments represented on board stood firm in line with the Captain and crew as the ship went down to allow as many of the women and children as possible onto the few lifeboats.  This became known as “The Birkenhead Drill” and an example of ultimate heroism.

The Captain incidentally, was a Capt. Robert Salmond RN, whose navigation appeared to be at fault and paid the price.  Interesting that, what other Salmond is in my mind is on course for a disaster with the loss of most of crew and passengers?  Although this might be the Inchcape Rock.

The disaster was one of the major stories of the Victorian Age and recalled in art and in poetry.  Rudyard Kipling had something to say, here is an extract:


“To take your chance in the thick of a rush, with firing all about,
Is nothing so bad when you've cover to 'and, an' leave an' likin' to shout;
 But to stand an' be still to the Birken'ead drill is a damn tough bullet to chew,
An' they done it, the Jollies -- 'Er Majesty's Jollies -- soldier an' sailor too!
Their work was done when it 'adn't begun; they was younger nor me an' you;
Their choice it was plain between drownin' in 'eaps an' bein' mopped by the screw,
So they stood an' was still to the Birken'ead drill, soldier an' sailor too.”


The HMS “Birkenhead”, was built at John Laird’s shipyard in Birkenhead on The Wirral and one of the early iron hulled vessels.  Tony, the present Lord Birkenhead is going to need to have ironclad qualities to deal with the BBC in its present form.

The question is will he persuade the men to stand firm and more to the point stop the politicians rushing to the boats and overturning them?  Even then, the wreckers will be waiting on the beach to welcome the survivors.

Sauve qui peut?

1 comment:

  1. "The inability of the BBC to use its incredible archive is one thing that makes me despair."

    I agree. If it did, I might even watch and I suspect many others would too.